Geeks are Sexy and Persistent Too – An Interview with Web Entrepreneur Yan Fortin

by NextMontreal on November 8, 2010

Yan FortinYan Fortin is a system administrator with a “day job”. But in his “spare time” he’s building a very popular website called Geeks are Sexy. The site has been in operation since 2005 and now has over 1.2M unique visitors per month. The site has been linked to by thousands of publications (offline and online) including Fox News, MSNBC, New York Times, Discovery News, Le Devoir, etc.

Yan works ~2 hours / day on the site, and employs 5 freelancers that create 30-40% of the content. He’s gotten it to the stage where he’s earning a good income from the site, and hopes to continuing growing it over the next few years. Making money online is something many people try, but it’s a lot harder than most people think. Making a living from blogging is even harder. We’ve interviewed Yan to learn more about Geeks are Sexy, why he got into the online website business and what he focuses on daily to make it a success.

NextMontreal: Why did you start Geeks are Sexy?

Yan: Initially, I started Geeks are Sexy as a way to put the various ramblings of an anonymous sysadmin on the web. Back then (2005), the site was running on a free blogspot account, and I never thought that someday it would gain the following it has today. It was not updated all that often (well, at least not 5-6 times per day like it is now!), and when it was, I used it to put down some of the tips and tricks I learned in my everyday job. Geek entertainment was certainly not the main point of the site.

NextMontreal: How many other niches / sites did you try before hitting on Geeks are Sexy?

Yan: Geeks are Sexy is the only site I ever launched. Throughout the years, I did some guest postings on other blogs as well, but it happened very rarely. After all, one doesn’t have much free time with a full time job and a family!

NextMontreal: Is the goal of Geeks are Sexy to become a full-time job or more about providing passive, sustainable income?

Yan: Going full time has certainly gone though my mind, but since the web is a fickle mistress, I thought that having a “real” job at the same time was the safe thing to do. So for now, let’s say that the site is both my retirement plan and what allows me to live comfortably.

NextMontreal: How do you drive most of the traffic?

Yan: I’d say that about half of my traffic comes from my regular readership, and the other half from external sites and social media: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Digg, and so on. All in all, Facebook is probably the service that drives the most traffic to my site. We’re talking about a little more than half a million page views per month here. In recent months, with over 100k fans, the site’s Facebook fan page has really helped Geeks are Sexy grow to the next level.

NextMontreal: How much active experimentation do you do on driving traffic, measuring results, analytics, etc.?

Yan: Most of the traffic comes naturally to the site. We don’t have much to do for it to happen apart from publishing new content regularly. As I said a little earlier, using Facebook to drive traffic is the most recent thing we tried, and I’m really glad how the experiment turned out. Unfortunately, with the job and the family, I don’t have much time to “experiment”, but I keep doing what I know works. As for measuring results, I use common methods, meaning using various stats engines to see where people are coming from and where they’re going.

NextMontreal: How do you monetize? Do you experiment a lot with different techniques for monetization?

Yan: I monetize the site using CPM (cost per 1000 impressions), CPC (cost per click), and CPA (cost per action) ads. The important thing to do when you run a website is to not put all of your eggs in the same basket. Diversifying your income stream is very important, so if something happens to one segment of the advertising market, at least you won’t be caught with your pants down. In the past, I used to experiment with various ad networks and income-driving techniques quite a lot, but I think I’ve found what works best for me now. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I’m really happy about how it all works out now.

NextMontreal: Have you ever tried going direct to advertisers to increase the amount you earn?

Yan: No, I’ve never tried that, mainly because using ad networks to fill in my inventory reduces my workload quite a lot. I wouldn’t have time to start contacting companies directly, and to tell you frankly, I wouldn’t know where to start! I know that ad networks take quite a large cut on the ads they sell on my site (around 50% usually), but that’s the price to pay to get the work off my mind.

NextMontreal: What’s the #1 thing you focus on for Geeks are Sexy?

Yan: The #1 point would be to produce content regularly and consistently. Persistence is the #1 factor of success of sites that work. I’ll keep my rambling on the subject for the last question of this interview!

NextMontreal: Do you see the value of RSS subscribers dropping? Or are they still very valuable and something you focus on?

Yan: I think it’s important to offer an RSS feed to your subscribers, even though the medium is a lot harder to monetize when compared to a regular web page. I don’t really push visitors to subscribe to my feed, but the means of subscribing are available everywhere on my site, so if people want to subscribe, it’s easy to do so. The reason why I think it’s essential to offer a feed is that most journalists and website owners looking for new content to write about use an RSS reader to peruse news sources. These are the people you want to push your content to since they’re the ones who’ll bring you traffic and potential subscribers.

NextMontreal: Who comes up with all the content ideas?

Yan: I give total freedom to my writers about the subjects they want to cover. They know that as long as the subject is geek-oriented, I’ll be happy with it. Occasionally, I can ask them to write about something specific, but It rarely happens. One example is a few articles in our “science is Sexy” series, which is written a Jimmy Rogers, a PhD student in Microbiology.

NextMontreal: How much of the content is NSFW?

Yan: Oh, I’d say about 1 or 2%. There’s very little NSFW content on Geeks are Sexy. Even if readers usually love it, I try to keep the site as business-friendly as possible. However, when we do post risqué stuff, we clearly tag the content as NSFW so that people don’t get in trouble for looking at it. As I said, it very rarely happens anyways, and a lot of our subscribers think that what we consider NSFW should not be tagged as so.

NextMontreal: What’s been the most popular piece of content since you started?

Yan: I’d have to go with a little contest I organized last year after I stumbled a picture of a women blowing into a teapot, which ejected the liquid into a cup through the teapot spout. I simply asked my readers to send in pictures of themselves doing the same thing, and then published the results on the site. The post attracted hundreds of thousands of people and even got us on BBC One’s Graham Norton Show. Another piece that was probably equally as popular is our Geek Alphabet, which illustrates each of the 26 letters with Creative Commons photography.

NextMontreal: What are your top 3 suggestions for someone that wants to start a niche site today and grow it?

Yan: 1- Be persistent. One of the common traits of popular blogs is that they publish content on a regular basis. If you want to blog for a living, you must be ready to write new and innovative content consistently for many months / years until you start seeing the fruits of your labor coming in.

2- Use social Media. If you write good content, people will talk about it, but only if you give them the means to do so. Provide them with the tools to distribute your content. I use the tweetmeme widget and the sociable wordpress plugin to provide this functionality to my readers, but there’s a lot of other alternatives out there as well. Start a Facebook page for your site. Open a twitter account. Engage your readers and encourage them to participate to discussions on the various services that connects to you.

3- Don’t be afraid to network with other like-minded website owners. Having partners online is one of the keys to success. Don’t forget: the more you give, the more you’ll receive, so link out to other people and leave constructive and engaging comments on their content.